Are hydrogen cars an eco-friendlier alternative to electric?
The world’s lightest element may be its most sustainable
The battery has continued its triumphant march for many years - more and more devices, such as mobiles, light-up trainers for children and even cars, are equipped with them. Electric and hybrid vehicles are slowly starting to dominate the streets with the full support of governments and a growing contingent of consumers due to their presumed green credentials. From a sustainability standpoint, the question remains whether battery technology for cars is greener and therefore, “better”? Is such unilateral support for electric vehicles justified or should we be focussing our attention on hydrogen to power our vehicles in the future?
The production of hydrogen from natural gas by catalytic reforming has been used in manufacturing processes for many years. With the development of proton exchange membrane (PEM), hydrogen, especially for the non-industrial sector as e.g. transport, is produced from water via electrolysis. The hydrogen and battery operated vehicles both need an increasing amount of electricity preferably from new renewable power stations such as solar or windfarms. The challenge going forward will not only be the energy revolution with replacing existing thermal and nuclear power plants, but also meeting increasing demand if these green energy generating sources are also to be used to produce hydrogen. Hydrogen vs. battery vehicles: 0:0
Both, the fuel cell (platinum, ruthenium) and the batteries (cobalt, lithium) need rare minerals. Platinum, ruthenium and cobalt are usually mined as by-products of copper and nickel. This type of production leaves large craters in the earth and degrades the environment. The largest lithium deposits are located in the so-called “lithium triangle” between Bolivia, Argentina and Chile, in Chile’s Atacama desert where three salt lakes form a huge lithium reservoir. To produce lithium, the groundwater, rich in minerals (the brine), is pumped into massive artificially created basins for targeted evaporation. The extraction of the brine from the groundwater causes the groundwater level to drop and dries up the riverbeds and surrounding farm and wetlands. Farm and grazing lands are lost, rare bird species threatened and mangroves that characterise this ecosystem are drastically altered. The local, mostly indigenous population suffers from the degradation, loss of land and lack of water. Hydrogen vs. battery vehicles: 1:0
The weight of the battery in an electric vehicle, which weighs several hundred kilogrammes is a clear disadvantage. The weight of battery driven vehicles reduces the range and is exasperated whenever electric vehicle owners drive a mix of short (city) and long distances. The most efficient in this case should be two separate vehicles for short and long distances which is absolutely not sustainable! Hydrogen vs. battery vehicles: 2:0
There exist several pilot recycling technologies for used batteries of electric vehicles: One possibility is to shred the vehicle battery into small pieces with subsequent treatment in acid baths, where the resulting oxides and salts can be used to build new batteries. Cobalt and nickel form an alloy that can be re-used. Another problem for battery operated vehicles is the transport chain for batteries in case of damage to the vehicle. There is still a lot of research necessary in order to have a sustainable treatment of used car batteries. But also the sustainable process to win high quality materials back from an old fuel cell is currently under development with the only surplus that the big mass of used fuel cells will come only in a few years. Hydrogen vs. battery vehicles: 2:0
With the mass rollout of new renewable generation units such as solar panels and windmills, consumers should adapt their demand according to the availability of electricity. This is possible with hydrogen production based on electrolysis and its accompanying flexibility: hydrogen will only be produced whenever there is enough solar irradiation or wind available. The electricity to charge a battery, on the contrary, has to be instantaneously produced which does not support the energy revolution. With an increasing number of electric vehicles, charging a number of vehicles at the same time will result in a grid capacity challenge. The economic solution will be different prices for “instantaneous” and “slow” charging. The technical remedy is either the rollout out of the smart grid technology or a massive extension of the existing grid infrastructure – but both solutions will be extremely expensive. Hydrogen vs. battery vehicles: 3:0
The way forward
The incentive to change from a combustion engine to a hydrogen and/or battery operated one may be achieved through regulation (e.g. access to cities) or tax incentives. A “game changer” might be Hyundai in Europe: The company wants to import 1,600 heavy hydrogen trucks to Switzerland by 2025, to serve as their European hub and they are willing to invest in the infrastructure (fuelling stations). Car manufactures with a tradition in hydrogen vehicles such as Toyota (Mirai), Hyundai (Nexo Fuel) and maybe some Chinese manufactures may take this opportunity to enter the European market. People will remain climate sensitive, particularly in light of the corona pandemic, which means the race between hydrogen and battery operated technology has now officially started. Other companies such as Alpiq and H2Energy (who are cooperating with Hyundai and Alpiq) are making attempts to increase production of hydrogen and a filling network. However, it will likely take additional political influence and investors with big pockets to make a significant step forward.